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Campaigns against Acid Violence Spur Change: Bangladesh Is One of a Number of Countries Trying to Prevent Acid Violence through Legislation While Providing Specialized Care for Victims, but Attitudes to Women Need to Change for There to Be Further Progress

Article excerpt

It happened twelve years ago, but Asma Akhtar still remembers the assault vividly. A spurned suitor in his late 20s sneaked into her family's mud shack in the village of Jhalakhandi in southern Bangladesh and poured acid over her face while she was sleeping. She was 14 years old. "[The acid] trickled down from my forehead, dribbled into one eye and stung my right cheek. I screamed," Akhtar recalls. It was her mother who bravely grabbed the man before he could escape. "Unfortunately; says Akhtar, "the damage had already been done" Because there was no doctor in the village, Akhtar had to travel by road and then by boat to the nearest health centre, a four-hour journey, and when she got there no one knew how to treat the injuries. In the end a family friend put her in touch with the Acid Survivors Foundation (ASF), a nongovernmental organization (NGO) that had just been set up in the capital, Dhaka.

"Acid is used because men don't want to kill, they want to disfigure," says Monira Rahman, ASF's executive director, who explains that while acid violence is sometimes perpetrated by spurned lovers, it can also be used to attain other objectives. Acid burns can melt the skin away down to the bone so they often require expensive medical treatment. Legal redress is time-consuming and thus also expensive, so acid violence is often used to ruin families. Nor are the victims always women. "Studies of chemical burns caused by assault over the past 40 years reveal that while in some settings most victims are women, overall men are at greatest risk," says Dr Alexander Butchart, coordinator of the prevention of violence unit at the World Health Organization (WHO), citing Jamaica as one country where women are reported to have resorted to acid violence against men more often than men against women.

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However, the studies are limited in that they cite only cases that have actually been reported. Campaigners say this is just the tip of the iceberg and that the true extent is much greater because women are often too afraid to report acid violence while many more live in fear of acid attacks. In Bangladesh and most other countries in Asia and in Africa where acid violence occurs, campaigners say the violence is typically male on female.

For Butchart this is an important consideration since addressing the problem effectively requires defining who is at greatest risk of perpetrating and becoming a victim of such violence. Butchart says that, with its partners, WHO is developing a manual on best practices for the prevention of burns and care provision for survivors, including a section on burns due to acid violence.

There are no global estimates of the number of victims of acid attacks each year. Apart from Bangladesh, acid violence has been reported in Afghanistan, Cambodia, China, India, Jamaica, Nepal, Nigeria, Pakistan, South Africa and Uganda. There have also been a few isolated cases in Europe and North America. In a highly publicized case in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, the model and television presenter Katie Piper spent more than a year undergoing surgery and physiotherapy to rebuild her face following an acid attack in 2008.

Before 1999, few countries were even talking about the subject, but since then, supported by United Kingdom-based NGO Acid Survivors Trust International (ASTI), ASFs have been established in several countries, including Cambodia, Pakistan and Uganda (ASFs are also planned in India and Nepal), and acid violence is increasingly on the policy agenda. "It is only in countries where there is an Acid Survivors Foundation mobilizing public support and working with the government that action is taken" says John Morrison, ASTI's chairman and founder. Morrison points out that apart from offering support for victims, ASFs raise awareness and spur the review or creation of much-needed legislation. …